Contributing to the Liberal Project as a Writer: A Primer

How writing from the very abstract to the very particular can help to advance a liberal agenda.

Contributing to the Liberal Project as a Writer: A Primer

Let us say that you, a typical reader of Liberal Currents, are worried about the rise of illiberal politicians and parties across the world. You have read the extensive coverage of what a likely Trump second term would look like, grounded largely in his words and the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. You are, perhaps, anxious that the polls show the current race to be a toss-up. And of course, globally, the far right has made significant gains, to say nothing of the influence of outright authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

You, like me, are not a head of state of any nation, nor a mover and shaker in the circles of power. You’re just a guy, who reads political media and intellectual magazines, and much more than that, you read posts on social media, and perhaps post yourself. The Republic of Letters once served as a crucial nexus for the advancement of Enlightenment ideas. Where then does our contemporary Republic of Posts fit into the defense and advancement of the liberal project in our times? What role can a writer of words play, be they an anonymous social media account or a high profile columnist at the New York Times?

In a recent essay, Adam Gopnik seems to ask this question about books in particular, but can’t quite seem to decide on his answer. He praises Robert Kagan’s Rebellion for “relevance” but notes its lack of “contemplative depth.” Alexandre Lefebvre’s Liberalism as a Way of Life, a more meditative work, though “excellent as a spiritual exercise,” is “scarcely more likely to get us through 2024 than smoking weed all day.” Lefebvre’s book, alongside Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal, fails to provide “any real study of the life and the working method of an actual, functioning liberal politician.” This is rendered confusing by Gopnik’s concluding remarks that Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism has aged well by comparison, given that this work is no more a study of concrete political tactics than the rest.

Gopnik is not alone in being unclear in what exactly it is he wants from a piece of writing on liberalism. Often enough the authors themselves lack a sense of what they are attempting to achieve, an uncertainty quite apparent to their readers.

A piece of writing can correct common errors or advance a bold new understanding; it can delight and entertain or provoke. A skilled writer can accomplish multiple objectives in a single piece of writing. The range of what can be accomplished in writing in general is too great to enumerate, and indeed we should not even try to set limits on it, any more than we ought to try to set limits on art in general.

For those writers attempting to advance the liberal project, however, we can be more picky. Some general points can be made about the core aims to choose among for a given piece of nonfiction writing

I will discuss writing along a spectrum of generality and abstraction, from the manifesto on one end, with its abstract list of principles, to the plan of concrete, specific actions, on the other. Works in the large middle range of the spectrum can in general be said to provide useful interpretative frameworks. Thus we can divide the relevant public writing into four broad categories:

  • Fiction
  • Statements of values at high levels of abstraction, such as manifestos
  • Interpretative frameworks, providing generalizations from empirical foundations
  • Specific proposals, be they policies or actions

In what follows, I will focus on non-fiction, but by no means should this be taken to discount the persuasive power of fiction.

Movement building

In her insightful exploration of why some movements succeed, Samantha Hancox-Li highlighted the “inside/outside strategy” developed by the LGBTQ movement.

The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management.  Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. "Something must be done?  Here is something you can do."

Hancox-Li argues that the inside component fails when they “are oriented around maintaining in-group cohesion” rather than at addressing the real problems that real politicians must address in order to “do something” in response to a successful outside component. Left unsaid is that some strategy for “in-group cohesion” must be pursued; we must simply make sure that it is not done at the expense of a viable inside component. In a world  in which “neither horizontalism nor hierarchy works” as a movement strategy, where movements as such tend to be “a chaotic mess of different factions, groups, and ideas,” other tools for coordination and a degree of group cohesion must be employed.

Many of these will be cultural in nature rather than organizational. Much as it wounds my pride to admit this as someone who almost exclusively writes nonfiction, the bulk of this cultural work is almost certainly performed through art and fiction rather than essays and philosophy books. But these latter do have their place as well.

At the high end of abstraction, the manifesto or list of principles is mainly aimed at an audience who largely agree with the author already. Sometimes everyone has a sense of what they want but a muddled sense of why it matters; clarifying the values at stake can be a valuable service to provide. Sometimes the author may feel that a reprioritization of values is in order. Moreover, it need not only reach fellow travelers; a well written statement of principles can serve to persuade detractors to join up, or at least to moderate their views.

The broad function of these works is to promote group coherence through shared commitment to publicly articulated values. This helps to produce a base of people who can be mobilized at key tactical moments by the more traditionally organized wings of the movement, laying the groundwork for a successful outside component.

Tools of analysis

Hancox-Li’s essay is neither a list of specific policies to implement in particular jurisdictions nor specific actions to take in order to navigate the politics of enacting policy. Instead, it is an analysis of successful movements in general. It is an interpretative framework that can help readers better understand specific movements for themselves. And it draws for examples on cases where success or failure is understood in liberal terms: criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, and the YIMBY movement.

Hancox-Li insists that “Functional inside strategies are grounded in reality.” From a pragmatist point of view I would reframe her statement as follows: an inside strategy has to provide politicians, administrators, and judges with actions they can actually take within their institutional and political constraints. Insiders must be able to answer the questions such authorities will actually have to ask.

In order to provide actions and answers of that nature, insiders must be able to understand the roles performed by politicians, administrators, and judges; the institutions, political and social systems of which they are a part.

Writing that is closer to the specificity side of the abstraction spectrum will focus on these institutions, this political system, this society. Perhaps an essay about the political dynamics of a particular state, or the structure of the legislative process in a particular city council. Hancox-Li’s essay is naturally more general than that, talking about movements overall. I have written about the strengths of representative democracy in general or the weaknesses of non-democracy in general, but also about America’s federal government specifically and how it might be reconfigured. The third essay is certainly much more specific than the first two, but none approach the level of a specific plan of action in a specific political moment; all are relatively zoomed out to the level of a system and how to understand the manner and significance of its operations.

Good interpretative frameworks are prerequisites for formulating more specific plans of action, at least if we are to avoid being merely reactive and if we wish to draw generalizable lessons from specific successes and failures. By explaining how real-world systems and situations either promote or suppress liberal values, the stakes are clarified to a greater degree than might be possible by discussing those values in the abstract. Finally, by demonstrating that liberal values can be anchored in a realistic analysis of the world as it is, such writing may persuade detractors or people on the fence about liberalism or aspects of it to either join up or moderate their views.

Authors of this kind of writing need to have invested time familiarizing themselves with the relevant empirical social science work for their topic. Although reading about the specific systems and societies they wish to write about is the most important step, investing in a foundation of comparative social science knowledge is very valuable for avoiding a very provincial sense of the possible. Along those lines, knowledge of history is also very valuable—indeed most of the real world examples of social systems in operation simply are historical—but it is important not to generalize too much from very specific events and circumstances.

This kind of writing is in many ways the most challenging. It is relatively easy to list off your values in the abstract or even to call for some specific action. Providing a general framework that allows the abstract to be used to judge the merit of the specific takes a great deal of time and thought.


In theory, very specific and practical public writing is meant entirely for those who can act on it; policymakers, for example. In practice, it is typically written for a wider audience than those who are likely to see it through, and therefore can be seen as at least partially focused on influencing the conversation rather than merely providing a blueprint to be implemented.

A book which provided Gopnik’s desired “study of the life and the working method of an actual, functioning liberal politician” would still be largely food for thought; a framework to use by people to devise specific actions for “actual, functioning liberal” public officials today. A strong recent offering in this field is Maxwell Stearns’ Parliamentary America. In it, he proposes three specific amendments to the US Constitution, complete with the text of the amendments themselves and detailed explanations of how they operate. Yet if all Stearns sought was just to make a proposal, he needn’t have written a book in the first place. Instead, Stearns builds up his own interpretative framework, grounded in an analysis of American social, political, and media history, as well as comparative political science. This serves as the basis of his justification for his proposal, both in its intended effect on the system and in the political practicalities of whether or not it could realistically get ratified. It combines an incredible amount of the general and the specific in a relatively concise work; it is, in short, a valuable contribution, even if its proposal is never picked up.

Closer to the point of action are the numerous think tank white papers aimed very much at promoting a particular inside strategy. And of course, activist organizations often circulate plans to march at a particular time or attend a particular town hall. Even with our wide-open media landscape and our low barriers to political participation, this end of the spectrum is still in general the purview of organizations, whether they be relatively decentralized and local chapter based, or large hierarchical nonprofits.

Their success, however, largely hinges on being able to mobilize a large movement beyond their formal membership to pursue some outside strategy, and on the existence of competent insiders supporting that movement.

The Republic of Posts

There is a long, long debate about the extent to which persuasion in general and public writing in particular are capable of moving events in the world; the extent to which they matter from a purely practical perspective. In a 2010 iteration of this debate, Malcolm Gladwell dismissed the role of social media in coordinating mass protests in Iran. In response, Clay Shirky noted that “the best practical reason to think that social media can help bring political change is that both dissidents and governments think they can,” something that Linor Goralik echoed in her discussion of managing the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review.

A year after the Gladwell-Shirky debate, the Arab Spring occurred and seemed to vindicate Shirky. But Gladwell had already misunderstood the history on which his argument rested. It is undeniably true that the Civil Rights movement and others like it relied heavily on organized coordination among groups of people with close ties to one another. But what this misses is that their success depended ultimately on the response they elicited from the larger society. In a thoroughly illiberal and ethnically polarized society, the very same well coordinated and peaceful actions that carried the day in America can simply be taken as a threat and stoke intergroup fears, often leading to a violent and repressive response rather than a sympathetic one. The reason that ABC’s broadcast of the events in Selma on March 7, 1965 led directly to the passing of the Voting Rights Act is that a national supermajority of Americans reacted with horror at the violent repression that local Selma officials were willing to visit upon the marchers.

It is easy to draw a line between action such as mass protest and mere words. But all outside strategies such as protests are acts of rhetoric. What matters is the manner in which they are received, and to be received well requires the cultivation of support for particular values and ways of looking at the world. Whether protesters are seen as threatening or as sympathetic depends a great deal on the preexisting cultural environment, something that is primarily influenced by cultural products—such as writing. To extend Shirky’s observation, it is not just that dissidents and governments think that social media and public speech in general matter; every single non-democracy censors public speech, and indeed the first step away from democracy is in nearly every case the implementation of a censorship regime.

The written word matters. Here at Liberal Currents, we aim to publish works that help to cultivate the community of liberal fellow travelers, as well as to put specific policies into discussion within that community. In our own small way, we hope to move us to a world that sees Black Lives Matter as an inspiring movement to be paired with a package of concrete and effective criminal justice reforms, rather than the dangerous threat that unhinged conservative outlets would have us believe. We seek to dispel the cloud of prejudice and fear that has led to a century of reactionary immigration policy. We want, in short, to do our part to create a more liberal America, and world.

And we want you to be a part of that. You can do so by sending your pitches to, or by supporting those who do.

Featured image is Death found an author writing his life, by E. Hull and C. Hullmandel.